Welcome! Please Check Your Identity At The Door



by Lacey Schwartz

I just got off the phone with a friend of mine who was planning on enrolling her daughter in a local Hebrew school, a decision she is now reconsidering. Why? After meeting with the school’s principal and expressing her concerns about the unique challenges of race in this setting, the principal smiled and earnestly told her not to worry, “We have had African-American kids before. We are truly a colorblind school.” A nice gesture, but most thoughtful people know color blindness to be negative – and not just for traffic lights and fashion choices. Though well intentioned, dismissing students’ racial identities does not signify acceptance. Yet, in the world of synagogues and Jewish camps, color blindness is often touted as plus.

I can appreciate the desire for racial neutrality that motivates people who claim not to see race. To them, it speaks to a vision of a world where the color of one’s skin does not matter. But, as a Black Jewish woman in America, I know this to be wishful thinking. Even if I wanted to discard my racial identity, I can’t. Moreover, I don’t want – nor should I have to – leave a part of my identity at the door when I walk into a JCC or synagogue. I want to be fully present. For me, Jewish peoplehood means including race in the conversation, not pretending it doesn’t exist.

Colorblindness stagnates important conversations about race. As proud as I am of the Jewish community’s history of working with the Black community for civil rights, or its vast array of social justice organizations, we need to be wary of ending the conversation there. There is so much more to discuss, and not all of it is as rosy as we might like. The historic commitment of some white Jews in civil rights does not give our community a free pass when it comes to concerns and awareness about race today.

When people choose colorblind frameworks, they fail to see not only a history of bias, but also a history of embracing difference. There is no such thing as racially or ethnically neutral Judaism. Whether we eat rice or not on Passover, the particular style of Torah chanting, the language in which we read the Bible – all are representative of the ethnic, racial and cultural diversity that defines Jewish history. And variations in Jewish identity have not ceased. They continue today, and the growing racial diversity of the American Jewish community plays a big part.

How race is acknowledged, integrated and understood in the Jewish community is very important, especially so for young Jews. We must be cognizant of how colorblindness can achieve the exact opposite of what is intended. By ignoring race, we overlook, for example, the impact of posters in our classrooms that portray only white Jews, unwittingly sending a message about who is Jewish and who is not.

In collaboration with UJA Federation, I work with Jewish leaders in New York who represent communities that are underrepresented in the best-known organizational structures of Jewish life. Their understandings of Judaism and Jewish living often differ from my own and from each other, but they share a commitment to maintaining that which is unique to their community and to our shared tradition. These leaders and these communities have much to share and model for the broader Jewish world. Dismissing these contributions not only does the marginalized communities a disservice, but it fundamentally undermines the Jewish community’s ability to remain relevant in an increasingly interconnected and multi-ethnic world.

In our attempts to be open and inclusive, we cannot afford to be colorblind. Jewish organizations, be they synagogues or summer camps, should not be asking anybody to check any aspect of their identities at the door. Jewish culture is overlaid with and enriched by the multitude of ethnic, national and racial characteristics that individuals Jews bring to the table. My Jewishness, as important as it may be, does not erase everything else about me. My identities are intertwined and inseparable. Despite the good intentions of many Jewish organizations, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between my experience as a Black person in America and a member of the Jewish community. Moreover, doing so misses a great opportunity.

Lacey Schwartz is Be’chol Lashon’s National Outreach / New York Regional Director. She is currently completing “Outside the Box,” a documentary about her mixed-race identity. Visit GlobalJews.org for my information about Be’chol Lashon.

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12 Responses to “Welcome! Please Check Your Identity At The Door”

  1. avatar

    Thank you for this thoughtful blog. And YES, we need more inclusive images of Jews in classrooms and synagogues. Jews of color, Jews who are not of Eastern European descent, Jews whose older relatives never included a bubbe and zayde. (also includes men lighting Shabbat candles and women lifting the Torah). “Everyone is welcome here” is one step, but asking everyone to fold themselves into a sort of generic “Jew” or “American Jew” identity is both impossible and a waste. Having everyone bring and celebrate their varied identities will only help the Jewish people grow.

  2. avatar

    I totally agree with the previous comment except that being an American Jew is not generic. There is this assumption that we are only recent (in the last 100 years) arrivals here in America and that we still maintain some cultural links to a mother/fatherland. My family has been here since the mid-1600’s (for my mom’s family) and late 1700’s (for my dad;s family). We have no connection to countries or cultures that existed in those countries when those long ago ancestors left. I am an American Jew through and through. I love the variety my family has incorporated into our traditions over the centuries. Both of my families are from the South and we identify strongly with that “culture” more than anything that came from the middle east or eastern Europe. That very American melange is anything but generic. I am certainly not saying that people who do have a connection to a past country not keep that link and be an American Jew just because they were born here, but there are legitimately American Jews in this country and our minhagim is anything but generic.

  3. avatar

    I would agree. America has a distinct Minhag. My mothers family have been in America since the 1700’s and my fathers family came to America in the 1800’s my identity is American Jewish.

  4. avatar

    The idea that there is no generic “American Jew” was actually my point. But thanks for the additional comment.

  5. avatar

    My grandsons are 9 and 2 years and “all American” in the sense that they have ancestry from many backgrounds, but they would also be identified most often as African-American. When the oldest one says that he wants to be “really Jewish” he means that he wants to be like Israelis and speak Hebrew. We are joining a synagogue, preschool and religious school which have few, if any, African-Americans. I hope and pray that they feel fully a part of the Jewish community.
    I do agree that race must be discussed and that there is no such thing as “colorblind”. I think that I would like those running Jewish programs to say that they will make sure that our children feel comfortable and that they will stand up for them, and affirm them. In other words, go the extra mile for them.

  6. avatar

    THIS SERIES OF COMMENTS IS VALUABLE. HOPE YOU CONTINUE THE CONCEPT.

  7. avatar

    As a former teacher at a local “reform” congregation, I find your comments to make a whole bunch of sense.
    Sharing each others various backgrounds and cultures was very important.
    I learned more from having “students of the rainbow” as it was called then only Jews of Eastern European background.
    Let’s keep it up!!!

  8. avatar
    Sondra Tuckfelt Reply July 3, 2012 at 8:46 am

    Now we have the next wave of correctness: saying that one is colorblind has been twisted into an insult. When a person claims to be colorblind, she or he probably means that the color of a person is not that person’s choice and is therfore not to be pre-judged. Certainly, it may means something to the person: it may indicate something about a person’s history, such as the color of the person’s parents or not. It may mean the person has someting to share or not. Each person brings unique issues to the group or classroom. If I say that as a teacher, I am “blind” to a child’s height(silly as that sounds, but related to my point), I do not mean that I fail to see that a child is short or tall in comparison to the other children. It means that the height is not relelvant to the acceptance of the child. This does nor dismiss the fact that the child’s height may affect a great deal in the child’s life. Small children may feel vulnerable;tall children may feel awkward. Each one may or may not have contributions related to being small or tall. I will not prejudge a child. I will see each child as unique human being who may or may nor want color or background or abilities or disabilites to be part of their contribution. I will value each child and help each child to become all that the child can be. I will help each child to make choices.
    I try to be understanding. If people say that they are colorblind, I am hoping that they mean that in their eyes color does not limit a child, that everychild regardless of color will be helped to be all that the child can be. I do not think that administrtor at the school meant that the child’s background or appearance was was irrelelvant to understanding a child, but that this particular child would be valued in this school injsut the same way as avery other child…and that each child brings a unique set of experiences and abilities and needs. Certainly, a child’s appearance and height and gender are relevant; but we do not want to have these qualities interfere with development. If they can enchance development, that is fine. A person’s background can enhance imagination, perspective, understanding; aperson’s height can give certain advantages….and so on, but it is not necesarily the case and to expect advntages is fallinginto same rap as eexpecting disadvatages. Hopefully, the administrator meant that thepolicy at this school was open tothe uniqueness of each child. Ithink that is what most people mean whenthey sy that they are colorblind. And if they are misguided, please do not judge them.It is a teaching opportunity.

  9. Larry Kaufman

    Thank you , Sandra, for so eloquently blowing the whistle on excessively PC colorblindness. Look at this in the context of quotas vs. affirmative action, or merit employment policies vs. population targets.

    And not everyone wants to be singled out, and reminded of or catered to because of hi or her differences.

    Wben being color=blind is the occasion for a put-down, it’s a sorry time.

  10. avatar

    Wow to to Larry and Sondra. I guess you will never really get it. When I hear people say OH I dont’ see colour I guess and hope you are blind. Don’t negate people just understand where that person is coming from.

  11. avatar

    hey–I am a “white” Jew–ashkenazi–but we are all from the mid-east-most Jews (ashkenazi, sephardi and mizrachi have similar DNA) however, seeing multi-racial Jews makes me beam with joy.

    I have told my sons that I would be thrilled if they dated and/or married anyone who is a committed Jew–regardless.

    Race is a meaningless identity in Judaism. In the event concerning tower of babel–the only thing that truly separates people is culture and language–NOT race. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew regardless (except if not converted according to halacha)

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